BY ALAN SHERROD
Jheat lovers have probably all heard the news– the University of Tennessee Theater Department and Clarence Brown Theater will say goodbye to the current incarnation of the Carousel Theater after its current production of She kills monsters. The Carousel Theater has been an institution in the Knoxville theater world since the 1950s and has been an influence, if not a stepping stone, for many to future careers, including this writer. However, time brings changes and the ever faster pace of change has made the need for a new facility for the present and for the future inevitable. The current structure – admittedly long overdue for a revival – will be demolished and a new facility will rise in its place, targeted for its first productions in the spring of 2025.
Naturally, one can feel a tinge of nostalgia for a building that has come to represent more than wood, concrete and theater equipment. For this reason, at first it seemed a bit odd that an ultra-contemporary piece like She kills monsters would be chosen for the final offer in the vintage Carousel Theater. Its playwright, Qui Nguyen, was a co-founder of the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company in New York, a theatrical organization that shamelessly trumpeted pop culture and the term “geeky theater.” Since its first production in 2011, the popularity of She kills monsters has steadily risen to the point of being one of the most produced shows in school and college theaters in the United States. Its relevant themes of openness, belonging and sexuality that bounce between reality and fantasy make it extremely appealing. As it turns out, then, She kills monsters was perhaps the perfect choice for the Carousel Theater finale, as it happily embraces a fundamental premise of theater success: storytelling. Don’t be surprised if this storytelling sneaks in and wins you over with its intelligence and energy.
At the base of She kills monsters is the Dungeons and Dragons game, although luckily you don’t have to have played it to enjoy or understand the game. , Agnès (Rachel Darden), a high school English teacher, discovers a notebook representing a D&D scenario, or “module”, that Tilly had created. for herself. Having no idea her younger sister was involved in D&D, Agnes realizes how little she knew about her sister’s life and loves. Hoping to learn more and find some form of closure, Agnes enlists teenage Chuck (Jackson Ahern) as Dungeon Master, so she can play Tilly’s game and hopefully , bridging the gap that obviously existed between them.
Directed by Casey Sams, She kills monsters comes colorfully to life with a clever twist between the reality of Agnes’ daily life and her entry into the fantasy world of role-playing where she can see her sister again and discover surprising facts about her. Simply, the cast of Sams is uniformly formidable starting with Allion and Darden as sisters. Ultimately, however, Tilly modeled her game characters after her own real classmates, giving them either heroic traits or flaws that classmates have in life. Tilly’s cohorts are Kaliope (Xitlalli Dawson) and Lilith (Gwyneth Doppelt), Orcus (Jordon Gatton-Bumpus) and Steve (the amusing Trevor Schmitt-Ernst), while Evil Tina (Natalie Wrigley) and Evil Gabbi (Christine Sage ) are heinous cheerleaders in the real world.
In this real world, Agnes’ friend and high school guidance counselor is Vera (the the brilliant Christine Sage also playing the fantastic role of the villainous Gabbi), who goes up against Agnes’ bewildered boyfriend, Miles (Zachariah Lidstone).
Clearly, one of the pure delights of this production is its masterful visual environment that serves both the real world and that of fantasy. Maybe strange creatures occupy both, but Tilly’s fantasy world is occupied by brilliant puppet creations (designer Morgan Matens) and performances by puppet actors Michala Plato, Ella Trisler and Garrett Wright. Set designer DJ Pike created the fantasy world environment and transformed the in-the-round theater into a contained thrust stage arrangement. The textural environment of color, rhythm, and sound was completed by lighting designer Josh J. Mullady and sound designer Tate E. Thompson. The magnificent fantasy costumes were by MJ Hromek. Jake Guinn choreographed the monster battles with touches of humor mixed with the physicality of the scene.
If all of this sounds disconcerting, that’s probably a big part of the fun of this production of She kills monsters. However, deep within the reality/fantasy conflict that is at the heart of the play, certain human truths unfold, both gently and violently. Be careful with your heart, however, you might lose it.
She kills monsters by Qui Nguyen
CBT Carousel Theater
Wednesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.; until April 10
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